Installing Self-Awareness and Lasting Change

Why is it that sometimes learning sinks in, and sometimes it doesn’t? Many of us receive leadership training, and yet, despite our good intentions, we don’t always integrate its lessons. We can speculate on why—heavy workload, excessive responsibility, insufficient support, etc. We can also take comfort in knowing that we are “doing our best” anyway.

But if we’re serious about transforming the way we lead, we can learn a lot from Della, a nurse leader who excels at changing her mind, her emotional habits, and her actions. Della is remarkable in her ability to “install” new leadership learning and alter subtle, but significant self-sabotaging habits.

As her coach, I know that Della’s success is hard won and unusual. Hers is a story that can teach and inspire us, especially when our professional well-being depends on making real and lasting change.

Della works in a community agency, and for the last she year, she has spearheaded its signature community health programs. When we first met, Della was troubled and reserved. In private, she told me she did not feel understood by her boss or her colleagues. She complained that she did not receive the support she needed, and she felt exhausted most of the time. She was apprehensive about her “fit” with the position. My 3-way conversation with Della and her boss revealed that he, too, questioned her “fit.” He confirmed that Della’s colleagues were concerned as well.

Della had always been well-regarded professionally, so these comments deepened her

For the next few months, Della reflected on how she had presented herself at work. She dedicated herself to better understanding her behaviors and her emotional tendencies when she is stressed. She became mindful of how she handles conflict, and she sought to comprehend her impact on others.

Della learned that she had subtle, reactive habits that damaged her relationships and
chances for success in her role. She started to interrupt these habits and try out new behaviors; as she grew more accustomed to acting differently, she also became clear about the challenges she had been having on her job. Soon, after much discussion with her husband, even though she did not yet have a new job, Della resigned from her position.

The emphasis of this column is not Della’s decision to leave. Instead, we are focused on how Della took charge of her emotional tendencies and “installed” new behavior, understanding, and self-awareness.

Della’s first step was to become a keen and discerning observer of herself. For example, she realized she was endlessly replaying what her boss and her colleagues said to her. She discovered that when their “real-time” conversations ended, she continued the interactions “offline”— in other words, she kept talking with them in her head. There, she questioned what their words meant and whether they were telling her the truth. There, she concluded that they felt she could not succeed in her role.

Fortunately, Della became increasingly conscious of her 1-sided replays and analyses, and she soon recognized that they were impacting nearly all of her work relationships.
She saw that her tendency to retreat into herself meant that she was no longer listening to or communicating with her colleagues. This withdrawal led to bruised relationships with the very people upon whom Della depended to achieve organizational goals.

As Della’s self-awareness increased, and the consequences of her reactive habits became apparent, she felt embarrassed and somewhat ashamed—at first. But she learned to accept these feelings and allow them to pass. She started to practice new behaviors and rebuild her self-trust. Eventually, she found fresh direction that buoyed her courage, her confidence, and her commitment to making emotional and behavioral change. These became the bases for her decision to leave her job, even though she did not yet have a new position.

Here’s how Della “installed” her new ways of being.

1. She was honest with herself. Della knew she wasn’t at her best in this role. Despite feeling disheartened, she was able to take in her boss’ feedback, receive input from her colleagues, and seek council from her own “gut.”
2. She was discerning about others’ viewpoints. Although she was open to her coworkers’ thoughts and opinions, she did not take any of the feedback as “truth” on its face. Instead, she checked the “fit” of the comments. Were they entirely true? Somewhat true? If she thought they were not at all true, before dismissing them completely, she reflected on
whether they contained even a small grain of accuracy.
3. She worked hard to become conscious of her attitudes, her emotional reactions, and her internal conversations. She tried thinking and responding differently. When old behaviors resurfaced and she stumbled, she doubled her efforts to stop the old ways and practice the new ones. For example, if she was continuing conversations in her head, she stopped herself by simply saying, “STOP.”
4. She created a compelling “vision” for herself. Doing this was challenging, and it took several tries, but in time, Della formed a clear view of the kind of job she wanted to have. Her new vision became her basis for action—it was clear that the job in her vision was not the job she had.
5. She valued her assets. Della appreciated her ability to analyze problems, opportunities, and others’ reactions. But she also realized that unchecked use of these strengths harmed her effectiveness and alienated her from her colleagues.
6. She practiced being kind and patient with herself. Della owned that she had given herself over to self-questioning and mounting insecurity. But by being compassionate with herself, she learned to spot and accept ill-serving leanings and stop them before they progressed.
7. She elicited the support of others. She talked more with her friends and trusted others. She engaged more frequently with her husband, and together they came to terms with
their fears and concerns about their future.

Della’s story is a compelling example of a leader who was willing to reevaluate
the ways she conducted herself as a leader. Through diligence and a sincere commitment to change, Della “installed” new emotional habits and behaviors that will better serve her and those around her for many years to come.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.

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